OC Gives “F” to Restaurant Letter Grades

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Instead of changing to letters or colors to advise diners of a restaurant's cleanliness and safety, Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to keep using the current seal, with words added in bold type telling customers if an eatery had passed a health inspection.

The board voted 3-2 -- with Supervisors Janet Nguyen and Chris Norby opposed -- to tweak the current system and implement it on Oct. 1.

Neither Nguyen nor Norby, who called it a "solution in search of a problem," felt there was any need to change the existing system.

The current seal includes an orange outer ring with wording inside the circle advising patrons about an eatery's compliance with California food safety and sanitation standards or whether a re-inspection has been scheduled. Under the change approved Tuesday, the seal will now have bold lettering with the words "pass" or "re-inspection needed" with the smaller word "pass" underneath.

If a restaurant is found to have a violation that cannot be immediately corrected, a message will be posted notifying customers that the eatery has been closed by order of the health department.

Last week, the supervisors shied away from the options of switching to a letter-grade system that is used in Los Angeles County or a color system based on traffic lights of green for pass, yellow for a conditional pass requiring re-inspection and red for closed.

Both systems were said to give clients what they want -- and what a 2007-08 grand jury called for last May -- a way to tell at a glance how clean or safe the restaurant has tested.

But both systems came with price tags that would include costs for retraining inspectors, educating restaurant owners and raising costs to the owners that would be passed on to consumers.

A letter-grade system would cost about $500,000 to get up and running and increase inspection costs by 2.8 percent, Richard Sanchez of the Orange County Health Care Agency told the supervisors.

A color-code system would cost about half the amount to implement and increase current fees by 0.73 percent, according to a staff report. 

Supervisor Janet Nguyen said that even tweaking the current system would carry some cost increase to both the county and the restaurant.

"Now is not the time to change," she said.

Sanchez said fees would be increased by $3.75 for the smallest eateries of under 30 seats for changing the current seal and by $4 for implementing the color-code system.

Supervisor Bill Campbell asked if costs increase because of more face time between inspector and restaurateur, and Sanchez agreed that "most of the increase is staff time."

Sanchez said that staff in Orange County had accompanied inspectors in Los Angeles County and noted the amount of time that inspectors spent discussing the letter grade with restaurant staff.

Board of Supervisors chairman John Moorlach, who said he was amazed at how many people have told him they appreciate a letter-grade system while visiting Los Angeles County -- particularly when many decisions on restaurants are chosen "rather spontaneously" -- made a motion to adopt the color system, but it failed 2-3, with Nguyen, Norby and Campbell against it.

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